Bhutan here we come

This place is unique - almost lost in time

Punakha monastery

Bhutan is a small third world country with a population of less than 800 000 citizens. They have gained much publicity by stating that happiness is their gross national product. So far we have explored the cultural and environmental factors that form part of the foundation they call the four pillars of happiness. But money talks and people, who live in traditional houses in green valleys and wear a national costume with pride still need to feed their families, educate their children and have access to medical care and other facilities.                        

Bhutan is a country that is diametrically opposed to places like South Africa both in concept as well as manifestation because their gross national product is based on happiness. South Africa is just - gross and has been reduced to junk status thanks to our corrupted government that makes everybody unhappy. Is Bhutan for real, with its carbon neutral/negative environment ruled by a king with citizens that have access to jobs and they don’t go on strike or wallow in continuous crime? They have access to education, houses and medical care, mostly at the cost of tourists like us who pay hefty levies to visit this place. Bhutan sounds too good to be true in a society that stares and taps at little mobile screens all day and has no idea of what respect, fresh air, consideration or happiness really mean.

Roalty rules everywhereCredit: Sue Visser

Jim and I are on another intrepid journey and our first destination is Bhutan, up in the Himalayas near Tibet. We had our first wakeup call about respectful conduct on route in Bangkok where we were asked to pray for their late King Bhumipol and not use pictures or statues of Buddha in a disrespectful way. Thailand is called the land of smiles and during a previous visit we found out that they are even offended by people who blow their noses in public or sit with the soles of their feet pointing towards another person or heaven help you, an image of Buddha. They, like the citizens of Bhutan do not point their fingers directly at people or objects, but rather show with sweeping gestures of an open hand. Dress code is important and shorts and skinny tops cause offence when visiting holy places. What must they think of us “barbarians” who don’t care a toss about what people think? As long as we are liked on Facebook.

In Bhutan the men wear a knee-length  tunic called a “go”. It is a token of their national pride. The oversized white cuffs are detachable so they can be washed separately and unlike Scotsmen they wear briefs under their skirts.  The women wear a “Kira” or wrap-around straight long skirt. They wear a long-sleeved button up satin blouse no matter how hot the weather. Even school children wear these outfits as we noticed when we saw them attending to their communal vegetable garden after school at 4pm. It is a long day and often they still have to study and do homework.

Vegetables grown by scholarsCredit: Sue Visser

Our guide Ugien explained that their version of happiness is based on four pillars that support the continuity and well-being of their unique domain. We noticed they are not concerned about international politics but generous contributions have been made by other nations to help them improve their roads and restore historical sites. It is a strange world of make believe. Even small children wear the traditional costumes and all of them seem happy enough.

We have come here to see this happiness in action. From our plane window we spotted the snow-capped Himalayas as we descended into the verdant Paro valley. Touch down. The epic experience begins with the presentation of white silk scarves by our guide Ugien and Yishi the driver of our flashy Hyundai SUV. They bundle us into the vehicle and we set off up a narrow winding mountain pass. After nearly turning green we stop to stroll around a temple complex with an impressive array of  stupa’s or mini shrines. We then wind and churn and descend into the next valley below for a much needed pit stop. We were told that there are only “organic” pee stops (bushes) available. We staggered into the rustic little alpine restaurant for a lunch of red rice and green vegetables and they made special omelets for the vegetarians.

Timphu the capital cityCredit: Sue Visser

The four pillars of happiness according to Bhutan:

  1. Maintaining their original culture and tradition despite development and modernization.
  2. Protecting and nurturing their environment by preventing pollution and the exploitation of minerals and vegetation.
  3. Ensuring the sustainability of their resources to support the health, housing and education of its citizen
  4. Good governance is what they call a democratic monarchy. They voted to have a king. Jigme Singy is a monarch but citizens still seem to have their say. No tyranny, cruelty, exploitation or executions. Refreshing, different to the way they ruled this part of the world in ancient times. Bhutan is not concerned with international politicking and during a recent speech the prime minister suggested that all nations should make gross national happiness a priority

 The highlight for all tourists to this area is the Punakha Dzong, in other words, an ancient fortress that nestles between two rivers. The Pocus and Mochu rivers represent male and female, yin and yang and their merging brings about  a symbolic union of the two opposing forces. This may explain why we left this place feeling so contented yet elated. Happy. If this s is the place of happiness may it infect the rest of the world. We are on a Bhutan high! We spent a comfortable night in a simple hotel, built in the traditional style as are all buildings in this country with no exception. It is one of the pillars of happiness and all buildings have to include the intricate woodwork and paint the colourful designs as they have done for hundreds of years. The landscape is attractive, neat and very clean. These happy people don’t litter, they are attentive, polite and very friendly. They all dress up in their traditional costumes and get on with their day. This demonstrates the first pillar of Bhutanese happiness. It works, even if we don’t understand it.

Bhutan the green

Along our journey through Bhutan we have discovered that the people behave according to a four-part plan, based on their collective view of what the pillars of happiness are. We saw the effect their traditional style of dress, building and mannerisms has on visitors to the country. We may find their clothing odd and impractical, they feel they are dressing like their beloved King and Queen and seem to have adopted their magnanimous mindset. Never a frown, a harsh word or any symptom of insolence have we seen. Everybody goes out of their way to make us feel at home and serve us with big smiles, nods and bows. It’s getting infectious! We gazed out over the green valley in front of our hotel that evening. Sustainable, with a balanced ecology and they aim to keep it that way. The second pillar of happiness is to conserve and to support their natural resources.

Trongza valley and DzongCredit: Sue Visser

The Trongsa valley with the Dzong or Fortress that is still used as a monastery and administrative centre for this region.

It was built in 1543 and the basic style of architecture is still in use today. The fussy woodwork and painstakingly intricate painting is seen on modern houses and hotels alike. Upholding tradition, yet embracing modernization. That explains the satellite dishes that mingle with the fluttering flags. Communication. The road to this remote place in the middle of Bhutan is being upgraded. Getting here took us over 6 hours on a narrow and excessively bumpy makeshift track that snaked between piles of rock, sheer cliff faces and scary views of the valley far below. Yishi our driver calmly handles the turns, the mud and the washaways that a recent shower of rain added to the katzenjammer. There are however, plenty of prayer flags and stupas on duty.

The lunch stop is a welcome relief, especially when organic ways of relieving yourself could send you hurtling down a steep slope. Today’s meal is served in the usual traditionally styled building and the interior is graced by the ubiquitous pictures of the beautiful royal couple and their baby. They serve as role models for their citizens who have no access to obtuse or slovenly behaviour on TV or Vogue magazine. What a surprise it was to find a traditional motif painted on the wall, near the entrance. A larger than life pink penis, complete with hairy bollox, a ribbon and a Jetstream. How do they explain this to children who are prudishly clothed from head to toe? “Hap - penis” indeed.


Ward off the evil eye with thisCredit: Sue Visser

We are enjoying our meals in Bhutan and the variety of tasty vegetable dishes is always served with rice, roast potatoes and a choice of meat or egg dishes. No slaughtering or hunting of animals is allowed in Bhutan and once again, India does the dirty work for them. Meat is imported into the country once a week.  Cattle and yaks are only there to provide milk and cow pats that are used for fertilizing vegetable gardens and rice paddies. The huge wide, flat-bottomed valley of Probjkha was once formed by a glacier. A river runs through it and creates a marshy wetland, the perfect habitat for migratory black-necked cranes. They are looked after by the Royal conservation centre. They supervised the electrification of this valley to protect these animals from being harmed by overhead cables. They buried most of them underground.

Pine forests have been planted along the sides of the valley to ensure a constant supply of timber as well as firewood for everybody. The conservation of the indigenous vegetation is a priority and this country’s green resources are not to be raided to extinction or rooted out to grow cash crops. Sustainability is their second pillar of happiness and today we have seen it in action. It encompasses respect for the environment and people do not litter or mess up the countryside. Ironically, it is the Indian construction workers who need to be policed about littering and untidiness. These people do the hard grind like building roads and power stations. They provide the oil to keep the wheels turning.

The white cuffed Bhutanese keep up a public profile that exudes happy smiles yet it depends on other nations to help sponsor restoration as well as many of the conservation and construction projects. It seems to be by default that Bhutan’s greenery is larger than life and that it has a population of less than 800 000 people. They keep the numbers down by having small families, not by force but because of common sense. A better quality of life with more to give to fewer people is the result. No money is wasted on military hardware or invasive conquests that cost the lives of millions of innocent people on either side of needless warmongering. Oh Mr Jacob Zuma and Mr Donald Trump, you and your stooges should come and visit this place!

Bhutan’s Social Responsibility

On World Earth day we met a group of Brazilian folk who were raising awareness about happiness and science. (That should appeal to the skeptics!) Happiness as we have seen, is not just an abstract feeling. It needs to be defined and substantiated.

the science of happiness

This pristine valley seen here has a wealth of timber, used for fuel and building materials. It is provided for free. I have also spotted most of the popular herbs one needs for the medicine chest. They always grow at your feet: dandelions for liver and kidneys, Artemisia for fevers and infections, red clover for hormone balancing, willow bark as an analgesic and so on. It is easy to tag this situation as naturally sustainable. But for the average person, it would not make them happy. We need our electricity, mod cons, connectivity, supermarkets and other advanced conveniences. Where is all the money going to come from to support Bhutan’s third pillar of happiness. The one they call social sustainability? 

The Costa Rica happiness model:

The science of happiness is not a new concept. Costa Rica is considered to be the happiest nation on earth, supported by a few decades of concrete evidence. Ever since 1947 they developed a more people friendly national budget. Now they can provide free education with the money they save from not having to maintain a national defence system. They also regard tourism as a major source of revenue. Bhutan is following in their sturdy footsteps, adding a few more factors to ensure sustainability. Bhutan’s primary source of income is green, free and abundant. Their hydroelectricity, that can be sold to other countries. This resource provides an effortless and infinite flow of money. South Africa prefers coal, corruption and pollution. Escom is not green, it’s black.

Telecommunication levies also help to fill the coffers, because income tax does not provide enough income for free education, infrastructure and basic medical services. Other amenities include sports facilities, hospitals, community centres, parks and roads. We spotted over 4 major communication towers and some of them were situated very close to residences or schools. It’s about money and our increasing demand for connectivity. But at who’s expense? There is plenty of evidence to prove how dangerous some of these microwaves are, especially to brain cells. Not a happy situation anywhere in the world. In the distance the 51 meter high statue of Buddha has recently been erected on the mountainside and will become a major tourist attraction. It is tourism that creates many jobs for the locals.                  

New idol cum tourist attractionCredit: Sue Visser


 A costly visit! This is not a cheap place for visitors. Backpacking is banned and it is compulsory for tourists to pay taxes and sponsor national education to the tune of thousands of dollars. We are also expected to use only local guides and drivers to support Bhutan’s 3rd pillar of happiness - sustainability. What a pleasure!             

 We spent most of our time driving from one vast valley to another. The lunch stop provides a welcome break. According to some of the people we chatted to, there is a problem with a creeping rise in population, putting more pressure on sustainability. In cities like Thimphu seen below, there are beautiful schools, sports fields, roads and parks.

Medical treatments especially are being freely dished out to people who are careless with their diets and lifestyles. Not much attention is paid to traditional, let alone preventative medicine if free drugs and hospital treatments are available. However, we met with the Dean of the Faculty of Indigenous medicine in Timphu.

Jim and sue with the Dean of Traditional Medicine

Are we forgetting the first pillar of happiness? Traditionally the citizens ate a healthy diet and relied on indigenous medicine. Today it is also provided to them free of charge. We saw a number of familiar herbs in their displays of raw materials but the applications were unfamiliar to me. Mica for asthma and gypsum for diabetes? Medicines alone cannot solve social habits that undermine their health. Buddhist medicine is more concerned about balancing the “three humors”. Alcohol is a “traditional” problem, especially because rural people can make as much grain-based beer, wine and spirits as they want to without being taxed.  There is a social problem with “green “  narcotics, amphetamines. This includes addictive substances  like cannabis and betel nuts, regardless of  how traditional and sustainable they are. People still need to behave responsibly and not burden the society with highs and lows that often need psychiatric treatment. The resultant depression is the antithesis of happiness.

EncouragemenyCredit: Sue Visser

Education is free and compulsory for the first ten years. After that the scholars have to write entry exams to compete for bursaries and financial support. They have to achieve a minimum percentage to guarantee their sponsorship. The military academy also provides free training as well as employment for young men. They are toughened up so they can cope with civil emergencies such as earth quakes, fires or the need for disciplinary or defensive action. They maintain a low profile and are only usually seen on the parade ground or at ceremonies. Bhutan’s national sport is archery but the government also sponsors soccer, athletics and basketball events.

Archery is the national sportCredit: Sue Visser

 In cities and towns the streets are not as neat or well paved as we would have expected. Although happy and good-natured, stray dogs wander all over the place and hang around in groups. They can be seen lying in the streets and cars often have to steer clear of them as they refuse to get out of the way. They breed without restraint and we were warned to watch out for all the stray dogs when we went for a stroll. None of these happy people seem to care about public hygiene in the streets that are littered with dog feces. Stepping into a pile of it does not make anybody smell happy.

Despite the efforts to provide beautiful facilities and lay on expensive services for the citizens of Bhutan, it is still up to every person to support their happy pillar of sustainability. Small things have a great effect.

Happiness begins at the top with

the King and the Government

Bhutan was originally a monarchy but recently, in 2006 democratic government was established. This fledgling regime still collaborates with its monarch, sharing the state duties. Equal respect is paid to secular and religious bodies. This is what helps to set up and maintain Bhutan’s 4th pillar of happiness. They call it good governance.

Pictures of the King and his wife are displayed in all public places. At the airport on arrival you are greeted by portraits of Bhutan’s five kings.  These monarchs step down from office at a time when it is suitable to hand over the reins to a younger successor who is better equipped to deal with ongoing developments a state experiences. The Royal Administration centre is housed in a traditional fortress in Thimphu. It houses both royal and administrative offices and there is also a temple, to acknowledge the importance of the Buddhist religion in supporting the fourth pillar of happiness. The Royal palace is a small rectangular building, situated in the grounds. It can be seen in the bottom right hand corner of this picture of the administrative centre. A humble dwelling and n so modest - like the King who does not wallow in excessive riches at the expense of his subject

Long live the king and short may he reignCredit: Sue Visser

We can see how such a unique setup works by visiting public places where people work, trade or study in the name of gross national happiness (GNH). A national strategy - to boost the economy. One rarely encounters so many motivated, dedicated and highly enthusiastic individuals. At the training centre for arts and crafts the walls speak for themselves.

The students are encouraged to support gross national happiness (GNH). All their training is provided free of charge so they can become sculptors, painters, tailors, wood carvers and so on. All of them work towards a common goal, for the common good. We also noticed that in every classroom, there were pictures to honour both religion and royalty. Some rooms had a shrine with burning candles and incense. Men and women were equally at home dong complex embroidery or using antiquated sewing machines.

Men in the workplaceCredit: Sue Visser

We  noticed that although the work was fine and intricate, few if any of the students were wearing glasses. Most people seem to have good  eyesight,  unlike their Chinese neighbours.

The national post office has also revived their dwindling income by tapping into tourism. They sell very expensive sets of personalized stamps to tourists who visit Thimphu’s main attractions. The post office also provides other merchandise such as post cards, souvenirs and handicrafts and is making a fortune.

The success of the government’s GNH drive works from the ground up as is clearly demonstrated by the happy chips story. Potatoes are organically produced and the fields are fertilized by happy cows. The slaughtering of animals is not allowed so the animals know no fear. The bulls are used for ploughing the fields. The farmers are linked to the benefits of the manufacturers and marketers of Happy Chips.

They are all working towards GNP. Even the chewing gum is happy!  Tourists like us have to pay the government 65 US $ each per day to visit this country and must spend at t 200 US $ each per day. For Bhutan, this helps to support the fourth pillar of happiness. Good Governance, that strives to provide a high standard of living for its citizens. But in the end, happiness is a state of mind and it is not state governed.  Now we need to go and install these 4 pillars back home!

visionCredit: Sue Visser


Armchair version of happy Bhutan for 30 minutes

Jim and Sue share their experience in April, 2017